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Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier interview: ‘The edge where it’s gonna fall apart and be ruined keeps getting pushed’

We sit down with the drummer of Deerhoof, Earth’s most exuberant art-pop band

By Brad Farberman |
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Deerhoof
Photograph: Chad Kamenshine Deerhoof

If you’re on the fence about catching one of Deerhoof’s three Williamsburg gigs this week at Baby’s All Right, check out footage of the band’s surprise Death by Audio on Sunday. The video begins with “Paradise Girls,” the opening track from the indie-rock innovators’ new album, La Isla Bonita, and it hits hard; guitars stick and squiggle, vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki drops deep punches on bass, and drummer Greg Saunier bashes charismatically. It’s the kind of music you want, maybe even need, to hear live—and if you want proof that DIY isn't dead, it's here in all its messy glory.
 
Touring behind La Isla in its 20th year as a band, Deerhoof plays this week in the company of six unique openers—two each night—including Assembly and White Reaper. We recently caught up with Saunier on a bench on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. Here are a few excerpts from the conversation.

On having tons of opening bands
This was true when we used to come here on tour from San Francisco and it became even more true once I moved here. It’s so hard to find two opening bands in New York because you want, like, seventy. [Laughs] ’Cause you’ve got so many friends and there’s so many good acts and just so many people doing so many interesting things. So I thought would be really fun to play three nights in a row with different openers every night. It’s gonna be the very beginning of the tour, so it’s us when we’re at our absolute most freaked-out, like, “Are we sure that we know how these songs go?” In some cases, we haven’t seen each other in a while. There’s a lot of potential for what we call “icebreaking,” which is making utter fools of ourselves onstage in front of an important audience. It’s gonna be really fun. I can’t wait.
 
On the joy of extreme repetition
We were playing a festival in Cologne after our last record came out where the previous night, Steve Malkmus had played the whole of Can’s Ege Bamyasi—it’s probably the most famous [Can album]. So when it was our turn to soundcheck—and they always ask for the drums first—I started playing the beat to “Vitamin C.” We all love that song. Then my bandmates told me over a year later when we started to talk about what we should do on this next record—they were all talking about, like, “Oh, remember that time you played the beat to ‘Vitamin C’? We were all so surprised that you could do it. We had no idea you could play a beat like that.” It was like, “What?” I mean, it goes along with what [La Isla producer] Nick Sylvester and what Satomi were angling for. In the case of Can, it’s really extreme repetition. A song might really just be one bar of music that’s played over and over again. Okay, the guitar drops out for sixteen bars and then comes back in or something like that, but that’s the only thing creating variation.
 
On improvisation
I’ve always been pretty sloppy and kind of a loose player—but I definitely play more wild now than I ever have. Wild not necessarily meaning loud—probably the loudest I ever played was maybe in the first year of the band—but just wild in terms of, I feel free. A lot of these songs we’ve been playing for a long time, so they’re actually more fun to play because we know them so well that you can take greater risks. The edge where it’s gonna fall apart and be ruined keeps, millimeter by millimeter, getting pushed further and further. All four of us can take more chances with each other. Of course sometimes it does fall apart—we screw up a lot—but we like to be somewhere on that line. If we never screwed up, then I think it would feel like we weren’t pushing it hard enough. Or it wouldn’t even feel like Deerhoof. Since the other people [in the band] have been doing improv shows, too, there’s a kind of confidence to try something that you hadn’t planned out and you didn’t tell your bandmates about and it’s not predictable. I think we just laugh more. We’re more relaxed.
 
On jazz pianist Thelonious Monk
I mean, it’s not something I talk about that much, but Thelonious Monk solos were always a huge impact on me, because of how much you can hear him thinking; there’s this feeling of, he’s trying to think what should the next chord be. And then suddenly it stumbles into the next thing. When he’s playing without a group and there’s no tempo, it’s very free, and if he gets stuck, he just sits there; it’s just a gap. And as you’re listening to it, you’re listening to him discover it at that exact moment. You can hear him changing his mind.
 
One of my favorite things ever is they compiled as a bonus track almost half an hour of him doing takes of “’Round Midnight” on Thelonious Himself. It’s totally unbelievable to listen to take after take—some last for thirty seconds and he starts over, and then another one is almost the entire song. And the guy comes in on the intercom and is like, “You wanna try another?” The number of different ways that he plays it is mindboggling. Sometimes it’s really old-fashioned, other moments he’ll suddenly sound like he’s playing medieval music. It’s very impulsive. So sometimes he gets into the spirit of something and is completely flowing and then other times, so awkward. Of course, with him you imagine that sometimes he’s playing up the awkwardness, but just that idea of music where you hear the decisions being made in real time.
 
Obviously, it’s not something you hear on a Madonna or Janet Jackson [album]. That quality of the musicians themselves never survives the process of an extremely slick record. But on this [new Deerhoof album], I think maybe more than any record we’ve ever made, you hear that happening. It’s similar to a live recording onstage, but those always sound a lot more confident and brash. This is a bit more like we stumble and then we get the motors going again and you can kind of hear confusion alternating with excitement that a song seems to be taking shape.

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Music, Rock and indie

Deerhoof

Elsewhere, Hell's Kitchen

The irrepressible Deerhoof—the world's premier art-pop band, and one of its top pop bands, period—visits to play behind its latest opus La Isla Bonita. That's the new disc, but the band's shows always draw heavily on its sizable backlog of jagged yet whimsical roof-raisers.

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